What Amazon's Move to Malls Means for Shoppers

It’s not all bad, though

Key Takeaways

  • A city-center presence could bring same-day and Prime Now delivery to more towns and cities.
  • Local fulfillment centers could mean fewer emissions from delivery vehicles.
  • Small businesses will be the first to be affected by the move.
Parcels are processed and prepared for dispatch at an Amazon.com fulfillment center
Emanuele Cremaschi / Getty Images 

Vacant mall stores could become Amazon distribution centers, allowing Amazon to extend same-day delivery, offer its Prime Now service in more cities, and potentially cut down on emissions from delivery vans working from out-of-town fulfillment centers.

"There are far too many diesel-powered vans delivering parcels for residents and businesses."

If negotiations are successful, Amazon would take over vacant Sears and JC Penney stores and turn them into fulfillment centers. In a way, Amazon has destroyed brick and mortar shopping—and now it will inhabit the corpse. This local presence would let Amazon offer even faster delivery options to downtown areas, but at the cost of yet more delivery traffic.

“I would like to see Amazon working with other distributors to set up single shared hubs with shared deliveries by electric vehicles,” University of Westminster Emeritus Professor of Urban Regeneration, and qualified town planner Nicholas Bailey told Lifewire via email. “Amazon going it alone is not a sustainable solution.”

Local Storage

According to the Wall Street Journal, Amazon has been in talks with the Simon Property Group since before the pandemic, but with COVID-related bankruptcies from JC Penney and others, there’s now a lot more ex-retail real-estate available.

These would be fulfillment centers, although the possibility of adding Amazon Lockers or some other kind of pickup service would surely be possible. The main advantage for Amazon here is that it gets to put a warehouse in the heart of a town or city, making deliveries faster and cheaper. Malls are perfect for this because they are already set up for receiving large deliveries, and because they have ample parking. 

Prime Now

If Amazon adds fulfillment centers closer to downtown, then Prime Now deliveries could potentially be made available in many more cities.

Prime Now is Amazon’s fastest delivery tier. Unlike same-day delivery, Prime Now lets subscribers pick short delivery slots for a limited range of goods. The service launched in 2015, and is now available in many, but not all, US states. Orders can arrive unboxed and are just handed over to you. 

Prime Now grocery delivery from Whole Foods Market
Smith Collection / Gado / Getty Images

The experience is like getting a delivery from the local bodega, and the order can reach your door within a few hours. To test the service, I once ordered a Kindle from a bus on my way home. An hour or so after I got back, a guy with a cool Amazon-branded electric trike handed it to me.

Faster, Greener

This all adds up to a win for both Amazon and the customer. Amazon gets to move into perfect, pre-built downtown premises, and offer better service to boot. Even employees would enjoy the advantage of a shorter commute, allowing them to walk, drive, or take the bus to the mall instead of an out-of-town warehouse.

Better still, delivery routes will be shorter. Instead of driving in and out of the city with every load, vans and cars will shuttle goods from the mall to offices, and to downtown apartments. Ideally, this would be combined with greener delivery vehicles. I mentioned the electric-powered trikes above, but there are other options. In Dublin, for example, UPS is testing electric-powered handcarts, with drop-in containers full of parcels. 

Once a fulfillment center is close to the customer, you no longer need gas-powered trucks and vans. Smaller, human-powered vehicles are possible. Currently, deliveries cause major congestion in cities, so anything that might ease that would be welcome. Then again, it could just mean more traffic.

Amazon vans are shown delivering packages
Bruce Bennett / Getty Images

“There are far too many diesel-powered vans delivering parcels for residents and businesses,” says Professor Bailey, “when consolidation and co-ordinated 'last mile' deliveries by EVs and cargo bikes will reduce congestion and improve air quality for all.”

The loser is, as ever, the existing retail industry. First, Amazon competed with department and big-box stores. It also put pressure on specialist retailers like camera stores, and, of course, book stores. Now, with the option of same-day convenience, combined with the current pandemic, who would bother to leave home to go shopping? Pretty much the only time I go to an actual store is if I need something right away.

The destruction of local chains and privately-owned stores is the real problem here. “My family owns a small business,“ writes RJ Khalaf on Twitter, “Amazon made everyone used to fast, free two-day shipping.” To compete, RJ’s business ships using USPS, but even that’s in trouble now.

The UK high street was decimated by out-of-town supermarkets, which then took over the carcasses of local stores to complete the takeover. Humans will almost always take the most convenient, cheapest options, especially if the consequences don’t immediately affect us. Amazon isn’t the first one to take advantage of that tendency, but it’s certainly the most successful.